The Sacramento News called her “as fine a singer as anyone on the acoustic music circuit, anywhere in the world.” Billboard praised her ability to “successfully walk the high wire above esoteric country, combining elements of bluegrass and pure country to form her own seamless mix.” Sing Out! magazine recently stated, “It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that if the “Americana” format wasn’t invented for her, it should have been.” And American folk music icon Utah Phillips boiled it down even further, asserting: “Whatever country music is supposed to be, she’s at the center of it.”
Laurie Lewis -- songwriter, fiddler, vocalist, teacher, producer -- almost quit music altogether the year she graduated early from Berkeley High School and moved out of the house. Her father, an accomplished classical flute player, encouraged all of his kids to take up instruments. But after “a botched run-in with the piano” at age seven, and five or six years of classical violin lessons starting at twelve, Laurie was ready to move on to something new, something that wouldn’t ask her to read a key signature. And while for the moment that meant putting down the violin and moving on from music altogether, it would turn out that she had already found what she was looking for, and it was just down the street every summer on the UC Berkeley campus.
“At the Berkeley Folk Festival,” Laurie remembers, “you could hear all kinds of music, and it just really grabbed me. That was the first place I heard Doc Watson, the first place I heard Jean Ritchie, maybe the first bluegrass band I heard, the Greenbriar Boys. And then there was Jesse Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. It just totally busted my ears open and got me really excited about folk music as a teenager.”
Inspired by the folk festival, Laurie picked up guitar, fell hard for bluegrass banjo, and joined the folk song club at school. She and her best friend taught themselves Irish songs and harmony singing, and even took their act out on stage at some of the best known Berkeley folk clubs of the Sixties. At the same time, Laurie continued to struggle with classical violin lessons. For whatever reason, the idea that she could play folk, country, or bluegrass songs by ear on fiddle was yet to click into place. Violin, at least in practice for Laurie, still equated to reading sheet music and memorizing compositions. So when her dad gave her a record by Chubby Wise and the Rainbow Ranch Boys full of fiddle tunes and waltzes, she listened to it and loved it, but it never occurred to her as a teenager to work out those songs and play them. Ultimately, all the hours spent scratching out Mozart sonatas on the violin, and her deep developing love for folk music and bluegrass in particular, would resolve into a long career right at the heart, as Utah Phillips reminds us, of what country music ought to be. But before that could happen, she had to step briefly away. Curiously, her path back to bluegrass would come through modern dance:
“When I was 22, I dropped out of college to take a job as the business manager of a dance studio in Oakland, and it turned out that the husband of the director of the dance studio was a bluegrass musician. Somehow he found out that I had played banjo when I was a kid, and he said, “Oh let’s get together and play.” So I brought my banjo, and of course I couldn’t play at all, because I hadn’t played in years and I was never really very good to begin with. We tried to play and it was terrible, but in the course of that conversation he found out that I played classical violin, and he said, “You could play fiddle!” So he took me over to Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco where they had live bluegrass seven days a week, and I saw fiddlers live, and it knocked me out. It’s funny, the twists and turns a life makes.”
And then the piece that had been there all along popped into place:
“Right at that time my sister was getting married and she asked me if I would do some kind of music for her wedding, and I remembered the Chubby Wise record my Dad had given me when I was a kid, and thought I could learn some of those waltzes off that record. So I did. A big door opened for me, realizing that I could actually just listen to something and play it without having to read music.”
The door wasn’t so much opened as blown off its hinges. And the community she had been introduced to at Paul’s Saloon was more than amenable to nurturing excited new talent:
“It was really a different deal coming at bluegrass in the San Francisco Bay Area,” she says. “All you had to do to be in was love the music and show up. There weren't a lot of cutting contests; it was all about making music together, a focus on interdependency rather than individual prowess.”
And show up she did. Before long Laurie was up on stage at Paul’s on jam nights, and then as bass-player with the Phantoms of the Opry, which featured Pat Enright, currently of the award-winning Nashville Bluegrass Band, as lead singer. Other bands followed. In 1974, Laurie helped found an all-female bluegrass band called the Good Ol’ Persons. She left the band in 1977 and played in a group called Old Friends, and then in 1979, the Grant Street String Band. “That was the first band I really started taking a leadership role in,” she remembers. In addition, Laurie played stand-up bass and sang traditional jazz with Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band. She credits this opportunity with further enriching her knowledge of music. “It was a great school to go to: there were these wonderful old guys (at the time, they were probably younger than I am now) just wailing on their instruments. Such training and chops combined with humor and a depth of emotion, playing off of each other and just letting go in some smoky bar in Point Richmond, CA. I learned so much about phrasing in that band. I owe them such a deep debt of gratitude for putting up with me, who was such a neophyte. Thanks, guys!” It was also at this time that her songwriting talents began to emerge. “I wrote my first song that actually held together and was singable in about 1975, but I'd say that it probably started ‘kicking in,’ such as it is, in about the late '70's and early '80's.”
Early songwriting inspiration came from Good Ol’ Persons bandmate Kathy Kallick. Loudon Wainwright III, Chuck Berry, John Prine, and Hoagy Carmichael are a few of the other influences Laurie names off the top of her head. But it’s Jean Ritchie, perhaps above all the rest, whose songs have consistently offered a way in. “I love her connection to the natural world,” Laurie explains, “and the way her imagery can pack a wallop with fewer words.”
Laurie, too, has been praised for her ability to write songs that cut through the noise.
“She does not sing inscrutably about her own life,” one writer observed, “but looks outward from an intimate perspective, in ways that let us see our own lives reflected back at us.”
In 1980, deeply embedded in the Bay Area bluegrass community, and far removed from any ambiguity about what she could do with a fiddle and a bow, Laurie opened a shop called Marin Violin (“We Understand The Fiddler’s Demand”), and ran it full time for eight years before the pull to make a solo record became too strong to ignore:
“If I just do this one recording I’ll get my songs out the way I hear them in my head, and then I can go back to my violin shop. What happened instead was I just felt so much more alive and so much happier in the recording studio and working on my music than I did in my violin shop that I finished my album, sold the shop, and never looked back.”
“Restless Rambling Heart,” co-produced with Tim O’Brien and released on Flying Fish records in 1986, featured seven of Laurie’s original songs. The release of that album sparked interest in Laurie as a performing songwriter and bluegrass bandleader, paving the way for a career as a touring musician.
In addition to the solo record, 1986 marked another key event in Laurie’s life: the arrival of longtime musical partner Tom Rozum. They began a musical collaboration that has spanned over two decades. In Laurie’s words:
“A huge part of my music is knowing that I have a partner and a voice like that to sing the harmonies. A lot of songs I write I imagine what the harmonies are, and I’ll actually change melodies so it’s easy to incorporate Tom’s voice in what’s going on. And he’s really important in terms of arranging. We tend to come up with arrangements together. He’s just got such a free-form musicality. It’s not like, “Oh, bluegrass sounds like this, and this sounds like that.” He’s just very musical, and not in a particular genre, which I think suits me really well because that’s the way I write.”
Laurie is a dedicated teacher, both in one-on-one sessions and in workshop settings. In her words: “I’ve taught music, fiddle, songwriting, vocal styles, harmony singing for many many years. I’ve organized and run camps: Bluegrass Week at Augusta Heritage Center for ten years, and Bluegrass at the Beach up in Oregon for fourteen. Recently, I’ve been teaching at a camp for kids. It’s just so great to watch them grow up and get deeper and deeper into the music, and to feel like somehow you’re some little part of it.”
Laurie has taught at the following workshops:
Producing has become an increasingly important part of Laurie’s work in music. In addition to her own recordings, she has served as producer on fourteen records and counting, starting with Scott Nygaard’s acclaimed guitar instrumental album “No Hurry” in 1989. In 1999, she began working with Charles Sawtelle and upon his death she completed the album he had started as a tribute to her friend. In 2012, Laurie jumped at the chance to produce a recording of one of her musical heroes, Alice Gerrard, for Alice’s first-ever CD of all-original material. 2013 and 2014 found Laurie in the studio with young Bay Area artists Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman, American Nomad, and The T Sisters.
“I love being able to help people realize their visions, and to utilize the skills I have picked up over the years helping others. Of course, I generally get to stay home and not be on the road if I'm producing locally, and that is a plus sometimes. I get very wrapped up in the process, and have to guard against taking on too many things, because it means putting my own ideas on the back burner. Often, I need a real kick to get going on my own material.”
“I’m not a great all-around musician because there’s a lot of skills I just don't have: I can’t play really fast, I can’t improvise like crazy. But the good thing is I’m able to express myself in a way that sounds like me, and people either like it or not. To me that’s really worth a lot in terms of anybody’s approach to music. It’s kind-of what I respond to in other musicians. These days there’s so many young players who can just play anything or do anything, that have this incredible vocabulary but nothing to say. And, of course, there are those young musicians with incredible chops who also seem to have wisdom beyond their years. Those are the ones I listen for.”
Hassan El-Tayyab, of American Nomad, had this to say about working with Laurie as a producer: "With her quick decision making and strong direction, we tracked all the basics for 12 songs on our album in just two 10-hour days at Bird and Egg Studio. Laurie got every member of the band to focus on getting the best performances we all had in us. That is how it should be in the studio. Every musician walked away from those two days of live tracking agreeing that was one of the best recording sessions any of us had been a part of, and that Laurie was a key ingredient. We are all lucky to have her sharing her heartfelt music and guiding the next generation of bluegrass and Americana musicians."
Sam Bush referred to Laurie’s music as “Newgrass in the truest sense of the word. To which Laurie responded, “I don't really see myself that way. I sort-of like the definition (which I made up, I think) of bluegrass being basically a singer-songwriter with string band. Think Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, Flatt and Scuggs, the Dillards, etc. I like to think that I fit that description and trajectory of the music rather well. But I realize that not many "traditionalists" would put me in that camp, and I don't really care. I like to do what I do, and it fits comfortably in the bluegrass camp in my head. I don't care what other people call it.”
"With her quick decision making and strong direction, we tracked all the basics for 12 songs on our album in just two 10-hour days at Bird and Egg Studio. Laurie got every member of the band to focus on getting the best performances we all had in us. That is how it should be in the studio. Every musician walked away from those two days of live tracking agreeing that was one of the best recording sessions any of us had been a part of, and that Laurie was a key ingredient. We are all lucky to have her sharing her heartfelt music and guiding the next generation of bluegrass and Americana musicians." – Hassan El-Tayyab, American Nomad